Posted: 08 March 2016

Just how many young carers are there?

At the launch of our new research on young carers recently in Birmingham one of the speakers said, that as far as he was concerned, it really didn’t matter how many young carers there were in the country – the only important thing was to make sure that more of them received the support they needed.

This was surprising, given that the person who said this, Prof Saul Becker, has been at the forefront of researching young people’s caregiving for more than 20 years, and has published estimates of the numbers of young carers in the UK himself more than once. 

Since the turn of the century there have been lots of figures touted for the number of young carers in the UK, including from the Census which is regarded as being the most authoritative source of data on the population, and at least five estimates from research studies.  You may not be surprised to learn that the estimate most used by charities is the largest (700,000 young carers aged between 5 and 17-years-old).

Variation between the figures is huge and our new research challenges the thinking behind them and offers suggestions for how this research might be done better in the future. 

I think it’s vital for us to understand the scale of an issue as best we can, and that there are many benefits that can be gained from having credible and authoritative figures to work with.

Differences in data

One task for this research was to look afresh at the figures produced from the two most recent Censuses, when questions about young people’s caregiving had been asked for the first time – and what we found was rather strange.  For example, there were differences in how much the numbers had changed between different age-groups – a huge jump of 67% more young carers in the youngest category (5-9 year-olds) compared with 15% more in the 10-15 year-old group.

This suggested that there had been problems with the way the data had been collected, and we discuss what these were in the report.

In our own research we have always been keen to find out how big an issue is in a way that makes sense to the widest audience.  Our figures for the number of young runaways, first generated from a survey in 1999 (as part of the original ‘Still Running’ research), still resonate and continue to be used for fundraising seventeen years later!  And they have been used to influence change to help and support young runaways over many years. An example of this is the spread of specialist projects for runaways (some of which have more recently branched into work with young people at risk of child sexual exploitation , for exampleour programmes in Lancashire and Newcastle).

I don’t believe many politicians, or the grant-givers in organisations like The Big Lottery or Comic Relief, would have paid so much attention, or funded this work, if they had not been compelled to acknowledge how many young people have these experiences, or the potential harm they can lead to.

To be fair to Professor Becker, I think in the context for the launch his speech (which was remarkable and inspiring, and shared his own experiences of being a young carer) was more of a ‘call to arms’ for the audience. They were a mixture of young carers and their parents, workers from specialist projects, and local authority staff, alongside a few academics, university students who support us and our own staff and volunteers. And actually I’m sure they were more interested in the second part of our study which focused on the diverse experiences of 45 young carers.and some of their parents and support workers.

But I still took the opportunity to disagree with him when I got up to speak. Size definitely matters to me.

 

By Phil Raws - Research team
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